Final Interior rule on public info avoids disaster but concerns remain

Fog rests in the valleys of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  (© Bill Lea)

The Department of the Interior (DOI) released a final rule today that impacts the agency’s process for releasing public records in ongoing efforts to limit disclosure of damaging information to the agency.

SELC submitted comments in opposition to the proposed rule on behalf of nearly 150 national and regional conservation groups in January 2019 outlining concerns about the proposed rule. In a major victory for these groups, DOI has abandoned many of the transparency-depleting provisions from the final rule.

“We are proud of the work the coalition of concerned groups did to push back against Interior's initial proposal to block the public from agency decision-making,” said Kym Hunter, Senior Attorney Focusing on FOIA Issues. “We remain concerned the final rule still allows for political interference to slow down access to important government documents rather than providing transparency.”

Under the new rule, the agency’s solicitor – a political appointee — would still be granted authority to deny or slowdown Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by shielding certain documents through a pre-approval process and holding the authority to stop expedited requests.

“Transparency at the Department of Interior is absolutely essential to protect our public lands and wildlife,” said Sam Evans, Leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program. “The changes to the final rule are a testament to the public's power when we collectively stand up for our lands.”

This rule change was the latest attempt by DOI to withhold documents that should be available to the public under federal law, including documents that exposed, among other things, the rampant corruption in the administration of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. This new rule was proposed on Zinke’s last day in office, which fell during the holiday week between Christmas and New Year’s and in the midst of a government shutdown.

Over the past two years, DOI has adopted policy changes and practices that have severely slowed the disclosure of public records. The federal Freedom of Information Act requires that public records be provided “promptly” upon request, but the agency has instead created unnecessary delays, bottlenecks, and rules in order to ignore requests.

Currently, SELC has multiple pending lawsuits challenging other policies and practices implement by DOI to withhold information from the public.

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